The Tragically Unhip
Saturday, September 3, 2016
The breakout movie of the summer was … actually it wasn’t a movie. It was TV, some internet show. Stranger Things to be exact. And the breakout character of Stranger Things was … not the person anyone expected.
It was the frumpy, bookish best friend of suburban princess Nancy Wheeler. In a time of steroidal superheroes and TV anti-heroes, Barb pushed her way to the front of the 2016 pop culture pack in her unfashionable librarian glasses, blouses made out of grandma’s curtains and mom jeans.
There is just something compelling about her. She isn’t just uncool. She’s tragically uncool.
In some ways her appeal is due the Boba Fett effect. The villainous bounty hunter has but a few lines, mostly stands around and dies ineptly. Yet he’s seen by fans as the alpha bad-ass of galactic history. Less is more. Mysteriousness adds to appeal.
Many of Stranger Things characters are types generously borrowed from horror, Steven Spielberg movies or, in the case of the teen characters, John Hughes movies. Among the group of preternaturally precocious preteens, we have the the doubter, the dork, the skeptic and the believer.
Barb is a type also, but she is something more. If Steve is the spoiled rich kid that we loath yet envy, Barb is the uncool kid that we fear becoming, yet sympathize with.
It’s possible to look at her extreme normcore style admiringly and go, yeah, what a bad-ass, she owns that shit! It’s more that she’s just an extreme fashion disaster beyond any kind of help. She’s herself, but that self isn’t anything anyone wants.
She ends up at Steve’s beer and teen sex party because she is Nancy’s driver 2 and cover story. She’d never be there on her own merits. Too uncool. While the other kids are pairing off, she’s left to go home alone. Again.
It’s the blood from her hand – stabbed while trying to shotgun a beer 3 like a frat boy – that attracts the monster, not the fornicating teens, in a nice twist on the trope of laid-then-slayed in horror movies.
And, poor Barb, even in death she’s neglected, written off as a runaway not worth even searching for. Ignored in life, used and then thrown away. That’s Barb. Who hasn’t felt like her at one time or another?
This is why Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers promised “justice for Barb” in Season Two. In a way, it will be justice for all of us.
- Yes, this is a cheap shot.
- Let’s talk about her car. It’s a Volkswagen Cabriolet, possibly the coolest car a teenage girl could have at that time. It’s also a Mark II, which was not sold until 1988. Perhaps Barb is a Time Lord?
- The symbolic link between Barb’s stabbed and bleeding hand and Nancy’s first time should have even the dimmest fan on metaphor alert.